Over recent days, the French media has discovered the significant presence of women, of all ages, among the gilets jaunes, a movement sparked by protests over neoliberal president Emmanuel Macron’s fuel tax.
On the ground, at the local level, women been a major presence on the roadblocks, and appeared regularly in media. Many female personalities have emerged among the gilets jaunes, from Priscilla Ludoski, who initiated a petition that attracted nearly one million signatures, to Jacline Mouraud, who posted a video on Facebook that went viral in late October. Mouraud denounced the lowering of spending power, low salaries, tax injustice, and the condescension and the class disdain of the powerful, all summarized by the call — “Macron, resign!”
The participation of women in strikes and social movements is nothing new; this is particularly the case in struggles revolving around the high cost of living. Yet what is really surprising is that women’s involvement is always presented as outside of the norm.
On the Front Line
In fact, since the eighteenth century women have been part of revolts in France, from bread riots to revolts against taxation and the lords. Indeed, women often took center stage, exhorting the men to follow their lead. As historian Arlette Farge wrote on this period in her Histoire des femmes XVIe-XVIIIe siècles:
From the beginning, in riots, it was the women who took center stage, in the front rank, exhorting the men to follow. In this moment, when “the world is turned upside down,” the men were not surprised, but were instead spurred on by the women’s cries and their exhortations; the men then swelled the crowds with their presence.
The men were well aware what impression the women make on the authorities, and that in being less punishable, they would have less fear. They knew that such a disordering of things may work to secure future victories for the movement. The men knew and accepted these masculine and feminine roles, but at the same time they judged the women, their cries, their gestures and behavior. Fascinated and irritated, they commented on the women from afar seeing them as improper and even excessive.
Farge’s summary of the role that women rioters played in the eighteenth century can also help us understand women’s relationship to social movements and formal politics more generally. Whether they were the initiators of the struggle, or more simply participated in it, they were judged by the men, since their presence constituted a transgression of gender norms. When they struck or demonstrated they were criticized or even discredited.
In October 1789, it was women who rallied against the high cost of bread and marched on Versailles to arrest the monarch. The women insisted that they would no longer want for bread, now that they were taking the “baker, the baker’s wife and the baker’s boy” (that is, the king and his family), to Paris where they could watch over them.
The historian Anaïs Albert has shown that in the “Belle Époque” (1871–1914), the women of the popular classes were pivotal in the mobilization against high prices, low wages, and poor working conditions. Such was the case of the seamstresses’ strike in 1917 [a two-week strike in wartime which secured the abolition of Saturday afternoon work]. Women’s role owed to the fact that the management of working-class households was incumbent on them, as an important part of the domestic work they provided.
These revolts were not simply spontaneous or spasmodic and not worth listening to. On the contrary, their specific rationality was highlighted by E.P. Thompson, in his work on the making of the English working class. Besides poverty, what lies at the root of such mobilizations is a sense of injustice: events experienced by both men and women actors as the breaking of a tacit social contract.
In the 1970s, working women on strike put a new focus on the dignity of work, feeling that there had been a rupture of such a contract. They found themselves humiliated, belittled daily by the bosses, and victims of the disdain coming from management. Before demands over wages or the organization of work, dignity, and recognition came to constitute an essential focus of their struggles, in which they questioned the frontiers between justice and injustice.
On the Sidelines
But, in the history of struggles involving both men and women there has been a certain tendency for women to be relegated to merely looking on as principally male trade unionists took over the tasks of organization and mobilizing strategy. In the context of the mixed-gender strikes in industry, women workers were often spectators — part of the struggle, but not involved in developing its strategy. In parallel, while feminists reflected on the links between women’s struggles and the class struggle, basing themselves on the experience of women workers, they did not always involve them in this intellectual work itself.
In all the social mobilizations of the recent period, the involvement of women has been consistently strong but, nevertheless, continues to surprise. Every time they take part in some mobilization, their participation always appears somehow as a novelty. Their presence is understood as the sign of an exceptional mobilization (even if the women themselves initiated it!). But what is really surprising is that their participation is forgotten – their presence is retrospectively made invisible.
Women have mobilized decisively in France over recent years, with strikes involving predominantly female workers occurring in the health sector (among nurses, for example), or in the sub-sector of cleaning. In fall 2017, cleaning firm Onet’s employees struck for several days in order to denounce their work conditions in the train stations, while the women working at the Clichy Holiday Inn rallied against the oppressive pace of their work. The current strike by personnel at the Park Hyatt Vendôme hotel makes visible not only their work but also the conditions under which it is carried out, notably including the sexual and racial divisions of labor.
Today, with the gilets jaunes, the involvement of women is partly linked to their role in domestic labor. Even if the motivation of the movement is not reducible to this, the unpaid work of making ends meet, in managing the household and family, is always left up to women.
In addition, some of the women involved in gilets jaunes work in care professions, where organization and collective mobilization are especially difficult to develop in and through the workplace itself. To mobilize together with the gilets jaunes is to highlight and indeed politicize the difficulty of their living and working conditions. This is also reflected in the first polls that have been published from an ongoing survey of gilets jaunes: many of them are caretakers, and home helpers, and many are single parents.
With the publicity given to the gilets jaunes movement, what may be changing is that the invisibility of women is lessening and being discussed (however, this remains only a general tendency; programs on conservative news channel BFMTV, for example, give far more space to men). This is perhaps related to the fact that the legitimacy of women speaking out has increased over recent months.
With feminist initiatives unfolding on a global scale, from the strike in Spain on International Women’s Day to the mobilizations for the right to abortion in Argentina, from #MeToo in the United States to the November 24 demonstration in France against violence against women, a new wave of feminist activism is developing. Central to this feminist initiative is the promotion of women’s voices in the media.
The composition of the gilets jaunes’ spokespeople is symptomatic of the tendency to invisibilize women’s involvement — they represented just one in four. But precisely the movement’s originality is that it does not have a leadership, through which men would be able to monopolize attention. The forms of democratic organization that have at times emerged in the movement have meant that women’s voices cannot be so easily disregarded. Feminist initiatives — general assemblies, processions during demonstrations — are also being advanced in order to make women and their demands even more visible within the movement.
In a context that makes managing the household increasingly difficult for many, mobilization makes it possible to reveal in public space what had been left in the private sphere. If many women burdened with these responsibilities can no longer get by, it is only right that the problems generally experienced as private issues are shown to have social causes and, indeed, that the personal is political.